Future-proofing Businesses: report from the Skoll World Forum

MBA Student Meagan Sutton-Bonwit gives us her perspective on yesterday’s Skoll World Forum session on looking beyond CSR, PR and Charity. 

Meagan Sutton-Bonwit

In yesterday’s session ‘Future-Proofing Businesses: Beyond CSR, PR, and Charity’, we had the opportunity to hear key sustainability leaders at large, highly-visible corporations speak about what sustainability looks like now and in the future in their companies. But while I was expecting the conversation to focus on future-proofing business through sustainability, each sustainability leader seemed equally concerned about future-proofing the future itself, as for them, the two are synonymous.

During introductions moderated by John Elkington, Founder and Executive Chairman at Volans Ventures, the first speaker opened with a question. It was Feike Sijbesma, Chairman and CEO of Royal DSM speaking, and he asked the audience if we were happy. The audience response was modest, but a positive “yes!” Feike then asked if we had heard the latest news report that 3000 children had died today. We were all confused- what news report? This audience doesn’t usually miss a beat in the world’s happenings. Feike went on to explain that we did not know about this because it wasn’t in the news. He elaborated on statistics of the world’s sufferings, emphasizing the lack of voice and visibility these problems often have in the world’s mainstream media.

future proofing businesses

Marcela Manubens, Feike Sijbesma and John Elkington: Future - Proofing Businesses

He then asked if these issues belong to us, the audience, and if so, then why we were so happy.  A provocative opening, but one that set the tone for the rest of the discussion. As Feike Sijbesma spoke about the critical roles that the public and private sector play in effecting change, it was clear that he believed in the importance of mainstreaming sustainability practices. Sure, such practices are oftentimes profitable for businesses as well, but it also seemed to me that for Feike, doing business sustainably is a moral imperative. Feike Sijbesma pursues sustainability as a business driver despite resistance, and in challenging convention it is leaders like him that are paving the way for my generation of leaders.

Also paving the way is Mike Barry, Director of Sustainable Business at Marks & Spencer, who highlighted the seven failures Marks & Spencer made along its path to sustainability and how they learned from these. In these lessons, it was clear that Marks & Spencer truly understood that introducing sustainability principles involved a fundamental cultural shift that required them to engage heavily with both internal and external stakeholders. And, as Marcela Manubens, Global VP for Social Impact at Unilever noted, we are engaging with an increasingly complex world.

Marcela Manubens began her talk by showing us a Jackson Pollock painting, likening the wild, intricate and flowing nature of the artwork to today’s complex world where we live with “fishbowl values” and ideas flow across borders. As she spoke, I also began to realize that our perception that the world is becoming increasingly complex is not simply a product of increasing complexity in the world, but is also due to the fact that we are becoming better at recognizing and mapping those complexities. The better we are able to do this, the more power we have to capitalize on complexity rather than be concerned by it.

While I continue to maintain a healthy dose of skepticism of the true effectiveness of CSR in social impact, I do believe that there are examples of companies that are moving beyond ‘CSR, PR, and charity’ and are undergoing an entire paradigm shift so that, as Feike Sijbesma proposed, sustainability principles are simply the “given” in business best practice. But this journey is far from over, even for these pioneers. As Mike Barry very candidly noted, 80% of Marks & Spencer’s activities are currently not rooted in sustainable practice – there still remains a lot of work to be done.

And this work will continue to be done by my generation- we who are in our 30’s and inheriting these challenges. During the audience Q&A, entrepreneur and business leader Liam Black (co-founder of Wavelength) probed the panelists about how they are preparing the next generation of leaders, steering the conversation to focus on how we can ‘unlearn the MBA bull’. As a current MBA student, of course my ears perked!

But ultimately, I was not concerned that my current MBA education was actually ‘bull’. Rather, what I take away from the discussion is that post-graduation, we need to leverage our skills and resources to solve the world’s challenges (rather than focus on maximizing income). Where do we start? By first recognizing we don’t know everything and that frameworks and models won’t solve these problems (they are merely tools). Rather, we need to start with ‘getting in the trenches’ and understanding the problems up close, as Mike Barry noted in his lessons-learned, and then be unafraid to challenge convention to effect transformational change.